The New Orleans Saints celebrate at the end of overtime against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday in Arlington, Texas. The Saints won 34-31. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Monday, December 24, 2012 10:04 AM
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — The Dallas Cowboys lost control of their playoff fate Sunday — for about three hours.
Drew Brees threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns and led a drive ending in Garrett Hartley's winning 20-yard field goal in overtime, and the New Orleans Saints beat the Cowboys 34-31 in a game that turned out to be meaningless to the postseason hopes of both teams.
The Saints knew they couldn't make the playoffs even before they turned away a two-touchdown rally by Dallas in the final 3:35 of regulation. Minnesota's win over Houston took care of that.
The Cowboys lamented the loss in a third straight game decided on the final play, but the New York Giants falling 33-14 at Baltimore later Sunday left Dallas in essentially the same position. With a win at Washington in next weekend's finale — now flexed for prime time — the Cowboys go to the postseason as NFC East champions.
"Even if we would have won today, we would have needed that game next week obviously," said Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who threw for 416 yards and four touchdowns, including a 19-yarder to Miles Austin that tied the score with 15 seconds left in regulation.
For the third time in five seasons, Dallas (8-7) can get to the playoffs by winning at a division rival on the final day of the regular season. The Cowboys lost such games to the Giants last New Year's night and to Philadelphia in 2008.
"I welcome that challenge," Romo said. "I think we've improved in some areas since those two years."
The Saints started 0-4 after coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season in the team's bounty scandal. Although they reached 5-5, another three-game skid left them needing too much help. They still celebrated plenty when Hartley's winning kick went through at Cowboys Stadium, just a few miles from Payton's home.
"We're never going to let anyone tell us we're not playing for something," Brees said. "We knew there were a lot of things that had to happen. We wanted to worry about the things we could control. What would have been worse is if Minnesota had lost and we had lost."
After New Orleans (7-8) forced a punt on the first possession of overtime, Brees moved the Saints to the Cowboys 33. He completed a pass to Marques Colston, who took a couple of steps before Morris Claiborne stripped the ball, sending it rolling about 20 yards to the Dallas 2.
Jimmy Graham, who said he dislocated a finger on a 26-yard catch to start the drive, won a scrum with Dallas' Eric Frampton. The completion that started the bizarre play was held up on review, clearing the way for Hartley's kick.
"I looked at the replay and I knew there was a fumble," Claiborne said. "I was looking at it saying, 'Please, let the pass be incomplete.'"
The Cowboys pulled within a touchdown on a 16-yard pass from Romo to Dwayne Harris and got the ball back with 1:29 remaining. Romo led the Cowboys 64 yards in seven plays, capped by the tying toss to Austin, who caught the ball on his knees in the end zone. It was Dallas' third overtime game in the past five at home.
"There was no panic," Brees said. "It was almost like we knew the game would come down to something like this. We just wanted that opportunity and the defense gave it to us."
Romo also had a pair of 58-yard scoring passes to Dez Bryant, who had a career-high 224 yards receiving. Romo was 26 of 43 and broke his own franchise record for passing yards in a season. He has 4,685.
The Saints, coming off a 41-0 blowout of Tampa Bay, took the lead in the third quarter after a 54-yard punt pinned Dallas at its 3. On the first play, Curtis Lofton stripped DeMarco Murray and Lofton recovered at the 5. Brees found Pierre Thomas open at the goal line for a 24-17 lead.
Brees was 37 of 53 in the ninth 400-yard game of his career.
"I don't know how many more accolades I have to say about him," Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said. "You want me to put them on my W2 form or what?"
The Cowboys put the Saints at their 2 with a 63-yard punt on their next possession, but Brees responded with a touchdown drive keyed by a 60-yard completion to Colston, who had 153 yards receiving. Colston broke a tackle by Gerald Sensabaugh before Sterling Moore ran him down at the Dallas 3.
The Saints turned a 14-7 deficit late in the first half into a 17-14 halftime lead in the final 1:11.
Brees led a 90-yard scoring drive that included Vitt changing his mind and going on fourth-and-1 from the Dallas 23. A completion to Colston was overturned on replay, but Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer lined up offside to give the Saints a first down anyway. Brees threw a 6-yard scoring pass to Lance Moore three plays later.
The Saints got the ball back with 47 seconds left and drove to Hartley's 37-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
NOTES: Dallas tight end Jason Witten had two catches in OT, breaking Tony Gonzalez's NFL season record of 102 catches for a tight end set in 2004. Witten has 103. ... Cowboys LB Ernie Sims left in the first half with dizziness a week after sustaining a concussion. ... Saints CB Jabari Greer, who had two interceptions last week, left the game with a concussion.